An Architects Guide To Essay Planning

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Over the course of my essays in university I’ve come to realise I’m an architect when it comes to writing. That is I plan so much that when it comes to writing the essay itself there’s little thinking to be done. In the first year of my undergrad degree Dr. Lyle Skains of the School of Creative Studies and Media went through a planning format for producing a coherent essay that I still use to this day regardless of what kind of essay I happen to be planning. Since I, and several other students, have found this format to be very useful I thought it would be beneficial to write it out so that mentee’s who much prefer planning out their essays in great depth can be made aware of it during sessions…

First, make a note of the total word count of the essay, for this example let’s say we’re dealing with a 4,000 word essay:

Total word count = 4,000

Introduction

Your introduction should take up roughly about 10% of the overall word count. In this case 10% of 4,000 comes to 400 hundred words so…

Intro = 400 words

Based on this method of planning a good introduction should do five things:

  • Make sure the subject is clear.

What we’re looking for here is something as simple as stating what kind of work is being written; argumentative essay, report, critical analysis, proposal, etc.

  • Purpose/Argument

What is the reason behind writing this essay? What is the main argument/point/information you’re trying to convey to your reader?

  • Background & Context

Establishing the state of the art, introducing (by name rather than explanation) the main theorists and theories being put forward.

  • Justification & Importance

Why is this essay being written? Why should we care that is has been? Is it looking at something new and interesting? Going to argue a point that has yet to be made?

  • Forecasting

My favourite line to use in mentor meetings: ‘essays are not mystery novels’ forecast the structure of the essay so the marker (and us as mentors) know what the essay should look like, the flow of thought behind it and what kind of conclusions you might come to.

Main Body

Having prepped an introduction the main body and conclusion of the essay would come next. Though I, personally, tend to leave the introduction till last as I find it easier to plan out with a planned essay body already made. A conclusion should be roughly about 5% of the total word count (so 200 words in this example) leaving us with a total of 3,600 words to write. A good paragraph that makes a coherent point in depth could be roughly 300 words, so that’s the total we’ll be working off here.

3,600 ÷ 300 = 12

Based off that we have about twelve decent paragraphs to plan out for this essay. The best way to do this is to think of each paragraph as its own mini essay and work accordingly. There should always be a topic sentence within each paragraph (preferably the first, occasionally the second sentence) which explains the subject-matter of that specific paragraph. This can be an argument being put forth, a subject that is being explained, etc. It is always vital to think how this topic being set out works to answer the overall essay question to help keep the piece of work on track; with that shall usually come 3-5 supporting statements that link back to supporting evidence that is then expanded upon to create an overall point for the essay. Finally, a closing statement should restate the topic of the paragraph (linking it back to the overall essay question by extension) and lead into the topic of the next paragraph as well. This helps with the flow of the essay and settles the reader into the introduction of a new topic/argument.

Conclusion

Having briefly mentioned this above, we know the total length of the conclusion in this case should be roughly 200 words and it is vital those words are used effectively. Within a conclusion there should be no new information or arguments as they should have already been covered. What a conclusion should do is restate the thesis (purpose/argument) and sum up all of the sub-arguments that were crafted within the essay paragraphs; it should also restate the importance of the research (justification & importance). Finally, if appropriate, the conclusion could mention further avenues for the research; new directions it could go, elements that could be expanded upon, or topics that were not covered in this essay whose relevance could be worth looking into in later (larger) projects.

By the time all this planning has been done writing the essay is the easy part as all you’re doing is transferring the information from a plan to essay format, writing it out eloquently and ensuring the spelling, grammar and punctuation are correct. I hope you guys have found this useful and if you ever get any mentee’s who’re looking to try a more architectural approach to essay writing this comes in useful.

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Once Upon A Time: Mentoring On Creative Pieces

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Though not necessarily a common occurrence within Peer Writing sessions, it could be possible that a student approaches us with a piece of non-academic writing; be it for an assignment within The School of English, The School of Creative Studies and Media or even a personal piece it could be useful to know a few tips to help advise a mentee on their creative work.

The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing which is available online via the university catalogue (I’ve copied a link to it below) is an excellent compilation of advice for both students attempting creative writing and mentors trying to give constructive feedback. This is a useful skill for us to have because, as the Companion states, ‘writers are, at their best, creative writers whether they are writing journalism, plays, philosophy, novels, history, poetry or scientific nonfiction.’ (Morley & Neilsen, 2012 Pg. 1) Below I have compiled a list of three aspects within creative writing that I’ve noticed my students struggling with consistently, and how we can aid them in overcoming these obstacles.

https://tinyurl.com/yb4jnaeu

  1. Floating Dialogue

This is a term used to describe too much dialogue being used in succession. It applies mainly to bodies of text such as novels and short-stories and can sometimes be used by writers attempting to avoid heavy amounts of description because they worry it makes their work seem ‘boring’ or takes away from the action. Essentially, the writer shall have a small map in their head of everything that is occurring within the story as they write it and may not be aware that we, the reader, cannot (and will not) create the same map of movement without written hints. So, when the writer focuses only on the dialogue between the characters the speech tends to ‘float’ up and the reader loses track of where exactly these characters are. It’s important to reassure the student that despite having good dialogue, the reader sometimes requires a little description too, even if it’s as simple as…

‘They began to pace, hands flapping and feet stomping against the ground.’

This is enough to ground the reader and remind them that the characters are still within the same room they were when the dialogue began.

  1. Purple Prose

This may be a term some are familiar with, and probably experienced if you’ve ever read Tolkien or Wilde, and is essentially the opposite of floating dialogue; purple prose is when the writer spends far too much time setting the scene. They may write pages about the glorious medieval manor house their story is set in and after a page of dialogue we leave it behind, never to be seen again. It brings down the reader engagement of the story and can oft times be a slog to read through. The best advice to give a writer who is showing this within their writing is to simply tell them it’s not required. Remind them that world-building is important but should be peppered in over the course of the narrative. If they’re unaware of it, inform them of Checkhov’s Gun:

‘Remove everything that has no relation to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’

This is an excellent quote to use because it can get the writer thinking ‘What does have to be there? What can I put in that will become important in later chapters?’ etc. and can often turn a point of criticism into a point of creative thought.

  1. The Inciting Incident

Many times when going over creative works with my students I will read about half way through, put a small line by a sentence and tell them ‘you’ve started your story here.’ All stories need to have a hook, an incident that incites the movement of the narrative while gaining the reader’s attention; this, as the name suggests, is the inciting incident. We, as the mentors reading through and helping to improve the work will often pick up on this much more easily than the mentee will. We read ourselves and if you look through the mentee’s creative work and find yourself wondering ‘what is going on here? What has happened? Why are these characters doing this?’ And you’re halfway through the piece it’s important to flag that up with the writer and let them know you’re lost. Once the writer explains it to you things may make sense and if they do, let them know that you should be able to obtain that information from the writing alone; encouraging them to think like they’re reading it for the first time is useful too.

And that’s about it! The most important thing, as I’m sure we all know, is to be kind when giving this kind of feedback as students can become very attached to creative pieces they’ve written, especially if it in some way is a reflection of their life, and encourage them to redraft, edit and never delete anything for good. If a piece needs to be removed I tell my students to save it within its own word document. Later down the line if they’re looking for inspiration for another piece of writing that small part could be just the thing… Come to think of it, that may work for pieces of essays that need to be edited out too.

 Bibliography

Morley, D. and Neilsen, P. (2012). The Cambridge companion to creative writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.